Is loneliness just a human condition? Or can dogs and cats feel it too?
And what, if anything, can we do about it?
By Fransi Weinstein
Recently I read an article on bored and lonely pets in the Sunday New York Times. It's something I've always wondered and worried about, regarding my own pets; and how they feel when I'm gone for long stretches of the day.
All I know is, now that I'm a freelance writer and work from home, my two cats are used to having me around, they don't like it when I go out and they show it.
They sit on my clothes in an effort to prevent me from putting them on. If I'm taking my laptop they'll even sit on that. They follow me around everywhere -- from the bedroom to the bathroom to the closet to the front door. Things they never did before.
Sometimes they sit there looking miserable, heads down, very dejected. Sometimes they slink away, hiding in a closet or under a piece of furniture. And then there are the times when they just look at me with a sad look on their little faces.
So needless to say after reading the article my curiosity was aroused
Thinking about it, I was pretty sure that most, if not all of us, have felt it at one time or another. Lonely. Alone. But our four-legged friends? What about them? Is my concern for my cats valid or am I just being neurotic?
I decided to dig a little deeper.
It seemed to me that the best place to begin was by trying to better understand loneliness from a human perspective; and then trying to figure out if there are any similarities between us and animals.
On the human side of the equation loneliness is, as described on Wikipedia, "a feeling of isolation or lack of companionship, a lack of connection or communication with other beings." Something that can be felt "even when surrounded by other people."
Considering that my goal was to determine whether or not animals could feel lonely, it's ironic that one of the treatments for loneliness (and depression) in people is pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy.
But who can they turn to?
I turned to an expert for answers
Dorothy Litwin is an animal behaviorist in Toronto. We had an interesting and informative conversation. But it became clear pretty quickly that if I was looking for a definitive "yes" or "no" answer, she wouldn't be able to give it to me.
"Quite simply," she explained, "we can't know for sure whether or not our pets are lonely because they can't tell us -- at least not in words, in a language we understand."
Having said that, she does believe, as I do, and maybe you do as well, that animals can suffer from separation anxiety (which isn't exactly the same as loneliness), animals can grieve (although it's hard to spot and diagnose) and dogs, even more than cats, want and need to spend time with humans.
What we can do
My reason for having two cats is so they are company for each other when I'm not home. I asked Dorothy her opinion.
"Technically speaking," she said, "if the animal is a social animal he or she would likely benefit from having a companion, even if they're different breeds." But she did caution against having too many pets, especially in small apartments or homes. "Animals are no different from us, they also need their private space."
For one reason or another it's not uncommon for some pet owners to keep their furry friends either crated or confined to a single room or the basement when they're at work. I wanted to know if this could contribute to a pet's loneliness or unhappiness.
Again, Dorothy explained "it's hard to know for sure." But she went on to explain that "if you start this practice early on, the animal does get used to it; however, the lack of control over their environment can be very stressful." Her advice is, "if you feel you must do it, get the largest crate you can find so it feels less like a prison."
"Does leaving music or the TV or radio on help?" I asked. Her answer surprised me. Apparently "some shelters play classical music because it helps to calm the animals." I didn't know that. She, herself, leaves the radio on because it drowns out any unpleasant or scary noises that can occur. I have friends whose dogs are afraid of thunder and wonder if this would help. We have some very noisy (jackhammering) repair work going on at the entrance to the apartment building where I live. I can see my cats react to it. It makes them jumpy. I'm going to give the radio or TV a try, even when I'm home.
Then I asked the two questions that are probably on your mind, too
Are there any visible signs or symptoms that might help us determine our pets' state of mind?
Assuming they are sad or lonely, can it affect their health and even their longevity?
Dorothy explained that "unfortunately it's difficult to identify because there are no visible markers." She went on to say that "loneliness can cause illness but so far a link can't be proven."
But obviously if your cat or dog starts behaving strangely, stops using the litter box, isn't eating, starts snapping at you, a visit to the veterinarian is in order to determine whether or not they're sick. And at that time, assuming they're in good health, you can and probably should discuss the loneliness theory with your veterinarian.
All of which leaves us where?
Pet ownership is a big responsibility. The bond between animals and humans cannot be denied and I, for one, believe animals have feelings, form attachments and want companionship every bit as much as we do -- even if there is no scientific evidence to back me up. I've had pets most of my life, both dogs and cats. I know what I see and what I feel and, frankly, I see how they react and behave.
They deserve the same kind of care and love and attention we crave ourselves. Obviously we have to go out and earn a living and have fun with friends and family. But when we are at home, we have to spend quality time with our fur babies, whether it's petting and talking to them, playing with them or taking them for long walks.
Too bad if we're tired, not in the mood, or need alone time after a hard day at the office. Fido and Felix have been waiting to see us all day. And frankly, I don't know about you, but when I'm stressed or frustrated or sad nothing calms me down and cheers me up more than a cuddle with my favourite felines. They're the best medicine, hands down.
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